The most significant factor for Republicans as they plan a concerted drive to deny the Democrats a second Obama term emerged in a fascinating detail from a Quinnipiac University Survey released on January 13th. In a provocative question, the pollsters asked 1,647 respondents whether they liked Obama’s policies and whether they liked him “as a person.”
The good news for Republicans: a slight plurality (48 to 46%) said they disliked administration policies. But the bad news showed a huge majority (73%) who said they liked the president personally. Only 19% agreed with the core conservative position, agreeing with the statement “I don’t like Obama as a person and I also don’t like most of his policies.” Even among self-described Republicans, only a minority (41%) said they disliked the president as an individual.
These figures argue the suicidal nature of any political strategy that scoffs at the president’s current calls for a more gracious and uplifting tone in our ongoing policy debates. The key voters who could conceivably facilitate future GOP victories are the nearly one-third of Americans (29%, according to the Quinnipiac Poll) who say they disagree with Obama on policy but like him personally.
The GOP won’t persuade these citizens by suggesting that the president is pursuing a “secret agenda” to wreck the economy, or following the dreaded Saul Alinsky model for socialist takeover, or deliberately undermining American strength because of a deep anti-colonialist “rage” associated with the Kenyan father he hardly knew.
Even conservatives who insist (against logic and evidence) that such dark and conspiratorial motivations accurately characterize this administration must acknowledge at some point that it’s easier to persuade Americans that their leader is wrong than that he is evil. The public will far more readily credit charges of incompetence than they will accept accusations of diabolical intent: after all, incompetence is vastly more common in human affairs than implacable malevolence.
Moreover, it should be easier to persuade people that the president’s wrong (or inept) on health care and spending than convincing them that he’s knowingly trying to wreck the country to fulfill his nefarious visions as a radical ideologue. Most Americans will stubbornly refuse to impute vicious motives to a familiar and attractive figure who seems like a nice guy and loving family man, and insistently expresses his love of country and his own good intentions. It will be far easier to win over some of the people who currently like Obama policies that these approaches aren’t working than to persuade the massive majority that’s fond of the president that he is actually a bad guy. In public opinion polling, positions on issues shift far more readily and rapidly than responses to personalities.
And what of the Tea Party activists and others who remain deeply convinced of the bad intentions and socialist schemes of the president and his top advisors? They need to realize that in a time of national crisis it’s more important to win elections and legislative battles than to advance abstract arguments about your opponent’s motivations – motivations known ultimately only to God and, perhaps, history.
So when the president says, “civility,” Republicans should respond by saying, “We’ll call your civility and raise you to graciousness—and now let’s get back to working together to fix the mess with health care and taxes.”
By avoiding a protracted debate over political style they can return the public focus to policy substance. And those are the arguments – polite, positive but principled – that conservatives can and must win.